Industrial plastics pioneer is happily molding its own future with relentless product innovation and swift market diversification
January 4, 2018
by George Guidoni, Editor
Caption: Founded in 1964, igus makes a broad range of dry-running plastic bearings (both above), requiring no lubrication and virtually no maintenance, and other industrial plastic products for a broad range of motion control applications in numerous industries worldwide.
For sheer necessity, utility and ubiquity, there really is no business like the plastics business.
And while clearly not everyone is a big fan of things made from moldable synthetic polymers, there are plenty of sound practical reasons why the highly versatile plastic materials continue to replace metals, glass, ceramics, wood, paper and leather in countless products and applications at an increasingly accelerated pace—despite all the criticism and disapproval this often entails.
Happily for igus, inc., German manufacturer of engineered industrial plastic products like ball and spherical bearings, linear guides, cable carriers and flexible cables, among many others, taking outside skepticism in stoic stride comes naturally for a company deep-rooted in the fundamental belief that anything one can do with metals to keep the wheels of the industry turning can be done with plastics just as well, if not better.
Founded in 1964 by Günter Blase, the privately-owned company is not an easy one to classify using traditional strict industry definitions, given its highly diversified global end-user base and an exceptionally broad and fast-expanding product range.
Nowadays serving 13 different industrial sectors—ranging from automotive and aerospace to packaging and food-and-beverage—igus has leveraged its pioneering instincts and formidable technical know-how to become a truly global supplier of seemingly unrelated, but highly functional and affordable polymer components and assemblies for all sorts of industrial automation applications.
While the bulk of these products are manufactured just outside of Cologne at the company’s futuristic, one-of-a-kind factory designed by the world-renowned British architect Sir Nicholas Grimshaw, igus operates a network of 36 subsidiary companies around the world today—serving the U.S. and Canadian markets from a well-stocked distribution center in East Providence, R.I.
Today headed by the founder’s son and company president Frank Blase, the company’s Cologne factory is a vivid embodiment of progressive management practices, formidable automation capabilities, high product quality, innovative design strategies, superior craftsmanship and all other often-cited attributes under-pinning Germany’s acclaimed world-class manufacturing excellence.
Employing about 1,500 people on a three-shift, six-days-a-week schedule, the 120,000-square-meter manufacturing complex houses over 400 heavy-duty Arburg and Engel plastic injection-molding machines, running around the clock to set pace for the constant flow of activity from one end to the other at the modular-designed building—its walls suspended to the ground from above by heavy-duty cables linked to eight towering 30-meter yellow pylons more commonly found on top of large-capacity outdoor sports stadiums and arenas.
Fully embracing the wall-free open-design concept, whereby the president Blase’s desk sits right on the factory floor within easy reach of all plant personnel, the unique building is a flexible, high-energy manufacturing operation where employees use a variety of electric-powered scooters to zip from one plant location to another in mere seconds to keep up with the busy production flow.
With all employees entitled to free company-paid meals and snacks throughout the day at the plant’s well-equipped and professionally staffed canteen, the positive energy radiating throughout the building is in itself a remarkable competitive advantage nurtured through thoughtful employee motivation and engagement.
This employee empowerment is also readily evident in the senior management ranks, with dedicated management teams assigned to focus almost exclusively on one of the 13 core industries served by igus, each headed by a designated industry manager.
For Lars Braun, head of industry management for the packaging industry, this sector-specific approach to developing new market opportunities is paying off in a big way.
As he explains, packaging machinery manufacturers of all stripes worldwide are beginning to discover the unique advantages offered by igus’s unique lubrication-free machine components—primarily maintenance-free operation, highly-hygienic design, and significant energy savings over the equipment life-cycle.
“Focusing solely on one industry allows us to learn more about what kind of new products we need to develop, as well as to learn to speak the customer’s language,” Braun told Canadian Packaging during a recent press tour of the igus Cologne factory and select installation sites for its equipment.
“We now understand the packaging market much better today than when we first entered it about 10 years ago,” says Braun, a 20-year igus veteran who has seen the company’s presence in the packaging and food-and-beverage industries grow in leaps and bounds.
“Being able to offer grease-free solutions to the packaging OEMs (original machine manufacturers) and their food industry clients is a very big selling point for us.”
According to Braun, igus has spent several years of intense product development to bring a multitude of FDA-approved food-safe plastic machine components and products to the North American market, and is currently working even harder on the next generation of similar products to meet the even more stringent food safety criteria anticipated to be launched in the EU (European Union) zone in the next couple of years.
“The main focus is on hygienic design solutions that would enable a linear table used in a meat slicing machine, for example, to resist any debris build-up during format adjustments,” says Braun, citing the company’s growing competence in providing pre-assembled system solutions/modules to its packaging customers, rather than just the basic components.
“We have noticed a trend among companies developing packaging machinery to concentrate on developing the machine without the distraction of developing a format-adjustment system that goes into that machine,” Braun explains.
This new core competence has enabled igus to become a close technology partner to some of the world’s leading manufacturer of processing and packaging machinery used in the food-and-beverage industries, including the likes of Multivac, Krones, KHS, Mettler Toledo, Sidel, Tetra Pak and many others.
“The igus packaging business has been growing by 20 to 25 per cent annually for the last several years,” says Braun, “and we expect this to continue for the foreseeable future.
“Naturally we have benefitted from the fact that Germany has a very well-developed packaging machinery market,” Braun acknowledges, “but we must reach out to the rest of the world to maintain our own growth.
“When I first visited the U.S. about 15 years ago, no one asked for or knew about maintenance-free bearings,” he recounts, “but now everyone we talk to is interested in maintenance-free packaging solutions.
“So the next few years should be a very exciting time for igus in the North American market.”
As Braun explains, about half of all igus-made packaging industry products are sold as standard off-the-shelf offerings, with the other half sold as proprietary assemblies to the OEMs like Krones.
“For companies like Krones, the spare parts business accounts for about half of their revenues, so if one of their machines at a Coca-Cola bottling plant needs a new part that was originally made by igus, they would have to purchase it through Krones because they paid for the original meld,” he explains.
“It is very unique in the packaging business for a company to be selling half of its products under such exclusive arrangement,” Braun states, “but all we are really doing is just following the market.”
Says Braun: “The operating speeds of today’s packaging machines are truly amazing compared to only 10 years ago, going from 10,000 bottles or cans per hour to 70,000 to 80,000 containers per hour.
“As these speeds continue to increase, so will the demand for maintenance-free, grease-free, hygienically-designed, low-weight components and modules that combine plastic with stainless steel to accommodate those speeds, while improving the OEE (overall equipment effectiveness) performance,” Braun states.
Recently, Krones AG incorporated an array of igus-made components into the high-speed Sleevematic TS machine used to shrinksleeve beverage containers at speeds of up to 50,000 cans or bottles per hour.
Instead of using traditional cutting blades to cut the individual sleeves prior to their application, the machine uses rotating perforation cutters to micro-perforate the sleeves—enabling continuous movement of the roll and doubling the throughput rate, while extending the cutters’ service life up to 70 million cuts each.
The new machine features a wide range of lubrication-free components supplied by igus, including dry-operating drylin R plastic nuts and drylin linear bearings for round shafts in the belt station and the sleeve brush; drylin W profile guides in the inlet and outlet sensor; and complete drylin SLW lead screw lift-tables with hand-wheel for manual adjustment in the preliminary shrinkage, as well as the height adjustment of the guide rollers.
The guide rollers, supplied by igus to Krones as a complete system solution consisting of two xiros polymer ball bearings and an anodized aluminum tube, helped eliminate the problems encountered with earlier use of metal bearings.
According to Krones’ head of product management inspection and labeling technologies Josef Mayer, the sleeve roll would sometimes come to a complete rolls stop whenever a label band would slip over it due to excessive vibration at high throughput speeds.
By switching to the lower-mass xiros ball bearings that use glass balls as the rolling elements, held by plastic ball races in the bearings, “These problems are now a thing of the pasts,” says Mayer.
Citing the “excellent” wear and friction values of the iglide high-performance plastics used to construct the inner and outer rings of the bearings, Mayer has high praise for the fact that igus completely pre-assembles the guide rollers for easy installation onto the Sleevamatic TS sleever.
“We are dependent on partnerships where the quality has to be right,” says Mayer, “but it must also be something more than just the product alone.
“Therefore, it is very important for our suppliers to offer not only good products, but also complete assemblies or systems.
“This is something that igus does very well,” says Mayer, citing a mutually beneficial 25-year partnership that continues to strengthen and evolve.
“It really is a great collaboration,” Mayer concludes. “At igus, we always have a personal contact who will always provide us with straightforward and suitable solutions for all of our needs, even during the prototyping stage.”